You Never Said You Loved Me
Lyle soared over the narrow straight between the island kingdoms of Shusoran and Cille. He left his own kingdom behind him, having deposited his sole passenger, a young woman by the name of Lena. She had slept the entire journey, unaware that a dragon rather than a boat had carried her across the near frozen ocean. He hadn't meant to bring her along, but apparently she had her own personal stake in the outcome of Rhys's quest and Lyle thought that perhaps he could use her. Besides, she had possessed the Moon Stone, an ancient artifact that Lyle had thought lost centuries away.
Ahead of him lay Cille, almost unrecognizeable beneath so many layers of snow. The fields were ruined. Not a single crop could grow in weather like this, weather so unusual that prior to this day, no living person in all of Aquata had ever seen snow before. People were starving. Conditions were worse than they had been only a week ago when he had last seen Maia.
He landed outside the city without much fanfare. Though the people of Cille were acquainted with the sight of those rare individuals called Dragon Knights, those few who possessed the dragon blood preferred to avoid flaunting their draconic shapes. He was here as a prince of a neighboring kingdom coming to see his cousin, daughter of the king of Cille, and not as a Dragon Knight. Perhaps if Agoe, ancestral enemy of Shusoran and Cille, had attacked them then there would be cause for crashing through the skies and landing in the castle courtyard, but not now, not for a family visit, no matter how much he anticipated it.
Today he would see Maia for the first time since she had regained her memory. He did not know what to expect. Caught in the throes of amnesia, she had fallen in love with and nearly married an Orakian, the traditional foes of the Layan people. When he rescued her he discovered that his actions were not viewed by her as a liberation so much as a kidnapping. Orakians were real, feeling people, she had insisted.
And now, after having met Rhys for himself, he had to agree. As prince of a warring nation he had never afforded himself the chance to view his enemies as people. All he saw of them were their machines tearing up the battlefield. This Prince Rhys of Landen was willing to personally chase down a creature as large and powerful as a dragon with nothing more than a single cyborg to aid him, and all for Maia. He cared for her, of that Lyle was sure, but was that enough? How would Rhys react knowing her to be royalty among his ancestral enemies? Would he still love her then?
Lyle would let him come to those answers on his own. He had already aided Rhys in the best way he could. Lyle had given him the Sapphire, which would open the path between the worlds of Landen and Aquata, giving Rhys to way to explore beyond the walls of his own home and discover from where his beloved had really come. If Lyle had been willing to search for Maia for six months before finding her, then Rhys should be able to do the same if he truly desired her hand in marriage.
"Hail, Prince Lyle of Shusoran," greeted the castle guards.
"Hail and well met," he replied with an infectious smile. Lyle's popularity extended beyond his father's kindgom to his uncle's as well.
"The king saw you flying this way. He's expecting you in his study."
"Is something wrong with the princess?"
"No, no. She's fine. She's still recovering, but she's going to make it. The king tried making your friend an honorary knight, though the man from Rysel would have nothing of it."
Lyle chuckled. He would have to thank Benth later for having completed his part in bringing Maia home. "So what did he give him?"
"Enough meseta to make him the wealthiest man in Rysel, once he gets home that is."
"The coast froze before he could get back?"
Lyle made a mental note to take Benth back to Rysel via dragonflight if the ocean showed no imminent signs of thawing. That would leave Benth's boat stranded near Shusoran, but better that than leaving the poor man stranded away from his family during such trying times, and because Lyle had asked a favor of him no less.
He walked upstairs to his uncle's study. Though he knew the thought was ridiculous, he couldn't help wondering if he had done something wrong. The only time he had been called into his uncle's study in the past had been for disciplinary reasons. It was a place of business and weighty concerns, not a room where one lightly chattered about the latest gossip.
The guards outside the study greeted him and informed him that his uncle was ready to receive him. Lyle thanked them and walked inside.
The study was small by royal standards, not quite the size of a communal room in the guards' barracks, and extremely cluttered. This was not like his uncle, who prided himself on organization. The king of Cille was still a hearty man, only barely forty years of age. He kept himself fit and in his younger days had been a skilled warrior. A good deal of that combative spark remained even now that he governed the battles from afar rather than from within.
"Have a seat, Lyle," he said as he cleared the desk in front of him.
Lyle did. "Thank you."
"I can't tell you how grateful I am that you finally found Maia and arranged for her to be brought back."
"Is she doing well?"
"Yes and no." The king sighed. "Her memory is coming back bit by bit. The doctors are doing their best and she has regained almost all of it. A few more days of treatment and rest should take care of it. But that's not the problem."
"It's this Rhys person she keeps talking about. She told us about what happened to her back in Landen, how he found her and she nearly married him. I daresay you had impeccable timing, rescuing her when you did. A moment later and we would have lost the light of our kingdom to an Orakian. Even after getting her memory back, she insists that this Rhys is a good man and confesses that she still loves him."
Lyle's heart sank, but he said nothing.
"Her pining for Rhys isn't healthy for her or for Cille," said the king. "I don't like to imply this but she appears to have acquired reservations about her marriage and you know how important that is for both our kingdoms."
By marriage the king referred not to the one that had nearly occurred between Rhys and Maia, but the arranged union of Lyle and Maia, the one the rulers of Shusoran and Cille had decided upon years ago. Now that Maia was sixteen, it was time for her to marry.
"Cille and Shusoran are strong against the Orakian menace for now, but your father and I are getting old and you and Maia are the only children in either of our families. We need the both of you to unite our kingdoms and stand strong together. The marriage of my sister to your father was the strongest affirmation of unity Cille had ever made with Shusoran. With you and Maia we can take that one step further and create a single Layan nation here in Aquata.
"Without Maia..." The king shuddered. "What would happen? I have no other heirs. There isn't another noble in Cille fit to rule this kingdom and you and Maia are beloved in both Cille and Shusoran. She never had these reservations before, never wished that things had turned out differently. Maia can't run back to this Orakian."
"She won't," said Lyle, with firm conviction. He was certain he could convince her to wait, to make Rhys earn the right to see her again, and if Maia would not be dissuaded from loving him then that Rhys fellow had better set down roots in Cille.
"Lyle, will you talk to her? I'm afraid she might view you with suspicion since you are her betrothed, but the two of you have always been close and I hope that she will listen to you when she does not to me."
He went immediately afterwards to Maia's chambers. Just stepping into the first room showed him the level of attention the castle servants paid to the return of their princess. Maia's maids teemed about the place. One of them kept a fire going and the place heated, the voice of a second came from inside the bedroom, inquiring something about pillows, and a third, an old woman by the name of Kela, chided Lyle for coming into an unmarried woman's quarters. It was a long-standing joke between them since he had gone in and out of Maia's chambers since they were children.
"Kela," he asked, "do you think that you could get the others out of here for a few minutes? I'd like to speak with Maia alone."
She nodded and called up the maids. The younger ones giggled and cast knowing looks at Lyle as they left. He just smiled and waved them on. Let them think what they would. He did not mind the gossip, especially if he got a kick out of it when it came back to him. Once they had left he walked into Maia's bedroom.
Her maids had propped her up on her bed with a multitude pillows and covered her with so many blankets that she surely must be cooking beneath that many layers. She had an open book in her lap, but she closed it when she saw him enter. Maia recognized him. He could see that in her eyes, the way she looked at him, but she didn't smile. Was she mad at him? Did she know why he had come or did she think this was solely her father's doing?
"Maia... Are you feeling better?"
She sighed and shook her head, her long blue tresses falling about her face. "They treat me like an invalid, as if I had the flu instead of amnesia. I'm almost better, but they still won't let me out of my own quarters."
"It's because they worry about you. For over six months they feared you were dead."
"I know, but it's not just that. Father's afraid I'll run away."
Lyle sat down beside her on her bed. "Yes, he is."
"And he sent you to talk to me didn't he."
He couldn't deny that, so instead he said, "Rhys is coming."
She looked up, a flush of desperate hope on her face.
"I gave him the means to leave Landen and come to Aquata," said Lyle. "If he's half the man you think he is, he's already on his way here. It won't be easy, of course, not with the weather freezing cold out there, but he's searching for you." He smiled lightly. "He doesn't have his army with him, which is a good thing since that might provoke a war. If he eventually plans to sneak into Layan lands things will go better for him if he doesn't try to take you back by force."
"Then you'd have to fight him, wouldn't you."
"I would, but if his army threatened Cille, wouldn't you do so yourself?"
"I'd try talking to him first."
"I would too."
"Lyle, help me out of bed. I'm tired of sitting."
Getting Maia out of bed was more a matter of heaving the pile of comforters to one side rather than helping her to her feet. She shivered, despite the thick gown she wore. The heat from the fireplace was still good, but she had been under the blankets for so long. She wobbled a few steps and for a moment Lyle thought he would have to catch her, but then she found her bearings and made her way to the window. It had started snowing again.
"Father thinks I've lost my appetite because of Rhys," she said, "but it's really because I can't stand the thought of stuffing myself when I know our supply of food must be running low. I am eating, don't worry. It's just I'm not eating more than I have to."
Lyle nodded. "It would give the Orakians a temporary advantage over us, but if necessary we can cannibalize our armies for additional food. Chirpers have served as both fodder and food in the past."
She turned away from the window to look at him. "It would be better if we made an alliance with the Orakians and worked together to survive this. While I have never set foot in Agoe, I'm sure they must be suffering through this winter just as much as we are. I doubt their machines can farm in snow any better than we can."
"That may be true," he allowed, "but they probably wouldn't trust us and I don't think your father would allow it. If they're worse off than us our people won't be happy about sharing what food we have left."
"If we could make them see..."
He came up to the window beside her. "I'm willing to say that Orakians are not nearly as bad as we've been lead to believe, but convincing everyone else of that is going to take time and I don't know that we can tackle that while also handling the problem with the snow. We have to think of our people first."
"Sometimes I think I was happier when I didn't have my memory. I wouldn't want to lose it again, but life was so much simplier when there was only one side to anything and all I ever wanted was to spend my life with Rhys."
"The timing of fate can be cruel."
"We now know that Orakians can be civilized, but we can't befriend them because we have nothing to offer without slighting our own people. I discovered you just as you were about to married instead of the day you arrived in Landen. And if only the storm had swept you away a few months later..."
She touched his arm. "No, then it would have been complicated."
"Our parents were just waiting until you were a little older."
"I know. I remember. My birthday passed while I was in Landen."
"And our wedding would have been soon after."
Maia nodded, but looked away. "Lyle?"
"You've always been my dearest cousin, but you never said you loved me until I overheard you speaking to your friend the night we stayed at his home. I suppose I should have known, but in all the years we've known each other you never told me."
"Maia, I..." But he could find no words to defend that.
He embraced her, more tightly than he had ever dared, and to his relief she did not pull away. Maybe it was too late now, but if he could only hold her this once as a lover instead of as her childhood friend that would be enough.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I didn't think. I had always expected to marry you. There was never any need for courtship."
He felt her relax against him and lay her head on his shoulder. "I know. I've always thought you were a good man and I could do worse than to become your wife."
"Did you ever love me, as more than a cousin?"
She was silent for a long time, so quiet she might have been asleep, but he felt the warm tears of her reply.
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